In 1960, a year before Al Shepard made his ballistic flight on Freedom 7 and two years before John Glenn went into orbit on Friendship 7, NASA was already planning what to do after the Mercury program wrapped up. Mercury was limited by the capsule’s on board power source and fuel store to short orbital flights, so for its next program NASA was looking to lay a foundation in space exploration.
By 1962, a program with focused goals had emerged: NASA’s main goal would be to prove that astronauts could manoeuver their spacecraft in orbit to rendezvous and dock with another vehicle. On January 3 the new program was publicly christened Gemini, an interestingly fitting moniker.
Alex P. Nagy from NASA’s Office of Manned Spaceflight at the agency’s headquarters is credited with naming the spacecraft. He also won a celebratory bottle of scotch. His inspiration was the constellation, and the fact that Gemini seemed like a fitting name. Sometimes called “The Twins,” Gemini evoked the thought of a two-man crew. Its symbol – ♊ – was reminiscent of the program’s former working designation of Mercury Mark II.
But there’s a deeper astrological poetry to the name Nagy claimed he didn’t know when he picked Gemini.
The constellation is named for the twin brothers Castor and Pollux in Greek mythology. Gemini’s controlling planet is, fittingly, Mercury. NASA’s Mercury program similarly dictated the design, goals, and timeline of the Gemini program.
It goes further. Key traits exhibited by those born under Gemini include adaptability and mobility, two key features of NASA’s second generation spacecraft – Gemini astronauts would have to adapt to long duration missions and demonstrate mobility in orbit. Other qualities include a love for collecting knowledge – the program was designed to work out the unknowns of going to the Moon with Apollo –as well as communication and transportation, both of which are inescapable aspects of a spaceflight program. Gemini is also an air sign, fitting for a space program.
No one involved in naming Gemini was interested in or influenced by astrology, at least not openly. Which makes the program’s name an wonderfully poetic accident.